They think I can’t hear them, those nurses with their starched cotton smell and professional whispers.
“We’re just going to put a drip in your arm now, Peggy. Soon have you right as rain.”
They don’t believe it any more than I do. I’m not even sure what ‘right as rain’ means. I’ve never liked rain, dismal drumming sound against the windows and the misery of wet feet and clothes when you have to go out in it.
They’ve attached me to a machine with flashing red and green lights. It bleeps all the time just like Mrs Fortescue next door’s burglar alarm. I thought I’d got a break from listening to that when they brought me into Enderby General. It was nice at first. All the fuss and attention and friends and family phoning to see how I was. The food was all right too, apart from the rice pudding. I’d expected to have a few days’ break and then be sent home. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather when they said they’d found a problem and wanted to do further tests.
I don’t remember having a funny turn. One minute I was in the Elderly Care Ward watching ‘EastEnders’, the next time I woke up I was in here. Intensive Care. Next stop the graveyard. Judging by what those two nurses were saying, they don’t expect me to be here at breakfast time.
I wonder if anyone ever told them when they were training that a person’s hearing is the last sense to fade. Probably not, nobody’s trained properly for anything anymore.
I try to talk to them, but I can’t make them understand. The words won’t come out
I’ve not liked confined spaces since just after my fourth birthday when Ronnie died. There, I’ve said it, and that locked door inside my head is creaking open.
My younger sister Ella used to spend hours playing in the bottom of Mum’s dresser when we were children. I used to play there too, but after Ronnie died I had panic attacks every time I was enclosed in darkness. Even though it smelled of cake tins, vanilla and spices, all I could think about was the heavy wet clay of the graveyard and the coffin they laid him in. Small, white and lined with swansdown.
Ella came in to see me yesterday, all pink lipstick smile and cheerful words.
“You must make an effort to get better, Peggy,” she said. “Think positive.”
She reads those books about getting the most out of life. There doesn’t seem much point once you get to our age but then she’s never seen life quite the same way as me. She’s always been the one to laugh off problems. Our mother said I met trouble halfway. I gave up trying to talk to Ella about my problems years ago. It was just after that counsellor person said it might help to talk to my sister about what she remembered of our childhood. All Ella remembered was the funny things, the day we moved, the last day Ronnie was alive.
“Mum’s shoe got stuck in the mud when she pushed the pram up the garden path,” she said with a chuckle, “and the lady from next door carried me. We had crumpets for tea.”
She had no memory of the confusion and sense of loss. Even thinking about that time makes me feel I’m losing the bleeping green thread that could mark the last hours of my life. There are shadowy figures at the edges of the room and I am afraid of them.
The nurse on duty has noticed a change. She calls a doctor and he shines a light in my eyes, harsh and bright as the full moon shining on Ronnie’s white coffin the night before the funeral.
I asked Aunt Molly where Ronnie had gone. The tip of her nose went pink and there was a catch in her voice as she said: “We woke up one morning and he wasn’t there any more.”
After he went away I never slept well. I worried other people I loved might be spirited away during the night. I took to getting up and wandering round the house, peering into bedrooms, just to make sure that nobody else had disappeared.
Something Mr Braithwaite from next door once said to his son Nigel terrified me. He’d caught him reading in the outside toilet when he should’ve been doing his chores
“The Devil makes work for idle hands, and if you’re not careful our Nigel, he’ll reach up through the hole in the seat and drag you down to Hell.”
I’d heard about the Devil and the eternal flames of Hell. If he could get into Mr Braithwaite’s toilet, then he could get into ours. I took to singing hymns loudly all the time I was in there, just to make sure he didn’t come and get me.
I’m worried now that he might be lurking in the shadows, waiting for me now.
The nurse with curly ginger hair takes my blood pressure again. I try to tell her more of the story, but the words won’t come out.
You see, I’ve always worried it was my fault Ronnie went away and never came back. I was feeling out of sorts on the day we moved. My special dolly, Rosebud, had been packed away so she didn’t get lost and I wanted her. We’d had cheese sandwiches for lunch and I didn’t like cheese. Ronnie did nothing but cry. He was usually such a happy baby, but today his face was blotchy with a rash and he lay in his pram just giving out a thin wail like a starving cat.
“I wish you’d go away and stop making that noise,” I said to him.
He stared back at me with milky blue eyes as if he didn’t recognise me.
“What a time for him to be teething,” my mother said to the lady next door who’d been a nurse.
“I’d get the doctor if I were you,” she said. “That baby’s not well.”
The doctor had floppy brown hair and wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.
“I’ll take you to the hospital in my car,” he said. “Can you get a neighbour to have your little girls?”
All Ella remembers is playing with the next-door lady’s kittens. We were in bed when Mum came back. The next-door lady stayed with us, doing her knitting. Dad was with Mum, someone must’ve fetched him from his shift at the railway station. He had his arm round her as if she’d fall over without his support. She was carrying Ronnie’s yellow crocheted blanket. They both looked white and hollow-eyed. I went back upstairs without being told and got into bed beside Ella. Somehow I knew something bad had happened to Ronnie. And it was my fault.
The ward I’m in now seems darker. The shadows have come closer, moving slowly. I can’t see who they are. The nurse with the ginger hair is looking at the bleeping red and green lines.
“She’s not responding,” she says to someone on the other end of the telephone line.
I shout that I am trying, but she doesn’t hear me.
I feel as if I’m on a pathway, being pulled back in time. Maybe this is what happens when you die. You go back to where you started.
I’ve got the strangest feeling that I’m floating, looking down at my body lying on the bed, following the concrete path that leads to our childhood garden. Hollyhocks, pink, red, yellow and white tower above me, with leaves the texture of woollen blankets and flowers like crumpled crêpe paper. There’s a box on the path in front of me. Mum’s special memory box that we were never allowed to touch that she always kept on her dressing table. The Devil’s voice is tempting me to lift the lid, just like he tempted me all those years ago. I see Ronnie’s crocheted yellow blanket and the blue and white cotton pyjamas Mum stitched for him with such love and care; his favourite rattle, shaped like a teddy.
It’s darker now and the full moon’s riding high in the black velvet sky, just like that night all those years ago. Someone is pulling me inside the house and then I’m left there alone amongst the creaks of the floorboards halfway down the stairs with the knowledge there’s a grown-up secret downstairs that Ella and I are being kept away from.
People had been in and out of the front parlour all day. The air inside the house was heavy, like just before a thunderstorm. The front parlour was only ever used on Sundays and at Christmas, but it’s a Wednesday in November.
I pushed open the door. Moonlight flooded the room, bright as daylight, shining on the small, white coffin surrounded by candles and vases of lilies. That’s what Ronnie’s face felt like, candles or lily petals, not like a baby at all. I’ve never liked candles or white flowers since. I can remember the sound of someone screaming. It didn’t sound like me. Bare feet thundered down the stairs, the door was flung open and my Dad carried me from the moonlit room and back up to bed. He held me close, his tears falling on my hair. Eventually I fell asleep.
Nobody explained back then about meningitis and how suddenly you can lose a loved one. Ella and I were little children. Nobody explained that death was final and how Ronnie wouldn’t come back. They thought we’d just forget him, but I never have.
Ella and I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t see him buried. And, even though I’d seen the body in the coffin, I kept hoping he’d come back. It was Aunt Molly’s comment that did it: “We woke up one morning and he wasn’t there any more.”
It got me thinking that maybe someone had taken him. For months, every time I saw a lady with a pram I’d stop her and climb up on the wheel rim and look in, just to make sure. “We had a baby called Ronnie. Have you seen him?”
Of course nobody had seen him.
They took me to a special doctor in the end. He talked to me a lot and I went to see Ronnie’s little grave in the churchyard in the shadow of a silver birch tree. Nothing made any difference.
I never married or had children. I always resented Ella because she did.
I’m frightened of dying, of not being here any more. If I’m not here, where will I be? Will I be forgiven or is that the Devil waiting in the shadows? What will it be like to be laid in the cold earth?
The nurse has done something to the machine and I’ve floated back to the garden, surrounded by the scents of roses, lavender and honeysuckle. I sense Ella’s sitting by my bed. “Go in peace, Peggy,” she’s saying through her tears. “Don’t be afraid. Mum and Dad will be waiting like they promised.”
I look ahead of me. At the far end of the garden is a wooden gate surrounded by an arch of fragrant pink roses. Mum and Dad are there surrounded by golden light. She’s wearing her blue silk dress and Dad’s in his Sunday suit, holding Ronnie in his arms.
Behind me I hear a faint click and the sound of a machine being unplugged.
“I’m so sorry, we did all we could,” the nurse says to Ella whose eyes are full of tears.
I don’t look back – I smile and step into the light.